PITTSBURGH, United States - This week the Pittsburgh Penguins reached the one-third point in their schedule, but despite having the great one-two punch of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the line-up, the team has but a mediocre 0.5 record and has been a disappointment so far this season. And, for all hockey fans who have been drawing comparisons between the high-flying Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s and the Penguins of the early 21st century, it is time to reign in the wild expectations for a while. Pittsburgh isn't yet in the same class as The Oil- and for several very good reasons.
For starters, head coach Michel Therrien has yet to prove himself worthy of comparisons to Glen Sather. Like Sather, Therrien was a fringe player who turned to coaching to stay in the game, but unlike Sather, who showed remarkable dual qualities of paternal and dictatorial strength with the young Oilers, Therrien has shown little Sather-like leadership with the Penguins. Sather realised how special his young team was, and sometimes he coddled the players and spoiled them. But more often he would push them, push them beyond what the players thought was reasonable or even fair. It was perfectly common for Sather to push Gretzky after the Great One had scored a hat trick and added three assists in a game, telling him he could do better, telling him to reach higher and higher and never be satisfied. Six points is great, but next time try for seven or eight. That was Sather's method.
In return, Sather pampered Gretzky during the games, double shifting him, putting him on for the full power play, giving him loads of penalty-killing minutes, getting him on the ice in every empty-net situation. Crosby, on the other hand, has played less than 22 minutes a game in 18 of the team's first 27 games this year, and Malkin has played more than 22 minutes only once in as many games. That's not enough ice time for two players of their calibre.
Until this past week, Crosby never played in short-handed situations. Sather's philosophy was simple: nine players on the ice instead of ten meant more room for his superior players to skate freely. Crosby rarely double-shifts and rarely plays after artificial breaks (i.e., start of a period or after TV time outs which afford players time to get their wind). Therrien has gone out of his way to play Crosby like his other 19 skaters - one shift, three of four lines.
Worse still, the Penguins did not help Crosby's progress when they named him captain this past summer, the youngest captain in NHL history. On a team with two highly-respected veterans - Gary Roberts and Darryl Sydor (not to mention the recently demoted and respected veteran Mark Recchi) - the Penguins could not have taken a bigger gamble. Indeed, not to name Roberts captain was to waste one of his trademark strengths - leadership. This is not yet Crosby's team, in the emotional sense. Of course, he is their best player, and all too often teams lazily pick their top point-getter as their captain, but Crosby has enough to handle every day - the media, the comparisons to Gretzky, the tag of "NHL Saviour" - without having to wear the "C". This added "honour" is an artificial one, one he has not yet earned, and one that simply does not yet feel right.
Gordie Howe did not wear the "C" until the 1958-59 season, his 13th in the NHL; Maurice Richard didn't captain the Habs until 1956, his 15th year in the league. Bobby Orr never captained the Bruins, and Gretzky became captain in 1983 after an emotional playoff loss and Lee Fogolin's decision to hand the "C" down from the veteran (Fogolin) to the new leader. Even Mario Lemieux, the previous saver of the Pittsburgh franchise, was not made captain until midway through the 1987-88 season, his fourth. In short, what's the rush with Crosby?
Attempts to toughen the team have not been particularly successful. George Laraque has a measly 21 penalty minutes, and although a fighter, to be sure, he has provided little "extra space" for Crosby in a style Dave Semenko provided Gretzky. And, Laraque's lack of offensive ability means that when he plays alongside Sid the Kid, Crosby has only three other realistic passing options instead of four.
To compound matters, Marc-Andre Fleury has been a disappointment in goal, playing like a junior star who is unable to make the transition to the NHL. The days he draws comparisons to Oilers greats Grant Fuhr or Bill Ranford seem a long way away. And, although Malkin has lived up to his expectations, many of the young players from last year who seemed to be emerging into a force to complement Crosby and Malkin have failed to deliver this year, notably Jordan Staal (two goals so far), Colby Arsmtrong (two goals), and Erik Christensen (three goals). It might be fair to call Crosby and Malkin the new Gretzky and Mark Messier, but the rest of the Pens have yet to prove themselves to be worthy of comparisons to Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, and Kevin Lowe.
Most important, the team has not established or discovered its own identity. They are not a run-and-gun team that wins games 8-5 or 7-4 like Gretzky's Oilers used to do, and they are not, thankfully, a team focused on stifling defence. So, what kind of a team are they? What is their approach? What do they think about as a team when they step out onto the ice? The mindset of the team is the most important factor if Crosby is to develop into a player worthy of comparisons to Gretzky, but so long as he is playing every third or fourth shift with players who rely on him rather than develop and contribute alongside him, he is less likely to blossom in the next Gretzky.
Anyone who loves hockey has to be wishing all the best for Crosby. The pressure he faces every day is enormous, as enormous as his wonderful talent, and if he can bring Oilers-like offence and excitement to the NHL, he will, indeed, be the league's Saviour. But before he can do that, he needs help - a lot of it. He needs to play a lot more; he needs more skilled and ambitious team-mates; he needs a coach who can push and control the team when the need is there; he needs a reliable goalie so that he can gamble without every giveaway becoming a potential game-loser; he needs someone else to be captain.
It sounds like a lot, but teams can change quickly, and there's no reason to think Crosby cannot blaze his own unique and historic trail this year and next and for many years to come.